January, 2020: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

(Book 117) Fictional Friends starts its year of going to the birds with Maya Angelou’s first of seven autobiographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Having experienced some January cold cabin fever, I meant no disrespect to our national treasure when I made the subject of my email I Know Why the Aged Nerd Clings (to this great group of girls). The following is my summary of last night’s meeting.

Thank you Mary for a lovely evening. I admitted going into the evening that I was desperate to be out and in good company and you created a perfect environment — cozy, comfy and Christmasy. (I needed a little (more) Christmas, right that very minute.) Appetizers were so delicious, I had to step away from the guacamole, and despite a minor confusion about our wine preferences, there was PLENTY for everyone. Both chilis (meat and vegetarian) were delicious — it was great to have both in one bowl heaped with avocado, both kinds of cheese, sour cream and the amazing cornbread. I also noticed that your huge salad bowl was practically licked clean. Your addition of cocoa to the top layer of the Tres Leche cake was genius, but you really didn’t have to go to your bedroom to whip the cream! It was all so good — thank you for all your effort!

I told you it was cozy.

The book: I think we agreed that we were off to a good start on our year of having gone to the birds. After we overcame Geri’s attempt to gaslight Chris into thinking she hadn’t read the entire book, things went very well. Marcia made notes, Chris dog-eared pages, I did my usual long list of page numbers, and FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER, LINDA MADE NOTES, and I for one am very proud. Our perfect hostess had even checked out the book of poetry from which Angelou’s title came, and I read the poem Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar:

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals –
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting –
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, –
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings!

We talked about the variety of influences in Maya’s young life and most of us agreed that though she was not perfect, her mother was a very strong character. There was a long discussion about the “choice” to have a baby as a teenager and the extent to which it was regarded as a blessing, not only from a religious standpoint, but as a family or community. We discussed the aspect of religion being so central in the lives of African Americans because it was all they had to cling to — as any form of hope, but it seems Maya also gave some responsibility to poets to help her people endure and bear the unbearable. It was noted that the book, though a memoir/autobiography, reads very much like a novel until its abrupt ending.
Using the Goodreads rating system, which was translated into nonverbal sounds, most of us went for 4 or 5. The rating system inspired Susan to mention that she used to be generous with 5 ratings but is now more stingy. We talked about what are 5 star books are: Marcia was first with Mists of Avalon, Mary chose Gilead, Chris was stumped, Sharon chose Bel Canto, I blurted out that I thought Susan’s was A Prayer for Owen Meany so we’ll never know what she would have said if left to her own devices, and I chose A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Cutting for Stone and City of Thieves. If you said your favorite and I did not hear or remember, please add it to the conversation.

I think it was at this point in the meeting that I gave Mary the art that was scanned and used for this year’s calendar: Yellow Rain by my brother, Paul Yohnka. I will be giving each of the canvases to the hostesses throughout the year and promise that I will not be looking for where they are displayed in your home and ask only that if they are not up to your artistic sensibilities, that you regift thoughtfully.

Other books we’ve been reading:
Linda mentioned that she read and enjoyed The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. Sharon said that though she was a fan of Ann Patchett, she didn’t care for her latest.
Sharon said that she liked Disappearing Earth and I agreed though I found it strange that it was making the lists of best books of the year. Sharon also said she’d finished Less which I think I had encouraged her to keep-a-going because I’d really enjoyed it.
I added The Topeka School to the conversation and said that it too was making all the best of 2019 lists, but though there is some good writing and interesting perspective, it is dense and blurry! I talked about Kookooland by Gloria Norris as a memoir that reads like a novel and dabbles in true crime. I didn’t mention this last night, but I have also recently enjoyed Colum McCann’s 13 Ways of Looking and Anthony Horowitz’ The Word is Murder.
Karen tells us that our next book is a relatively short one, and that it will be possible to read it by February 13 when we will discuss Flaubert’s Parrot with Karen hosting at Marcia’s home.
Respectfully submitted,
Fearless* Leader

*with the exception of most roller coasters, spiders, and today’s Republican party